August 13, 2001

Secretaries use Linux, taxpayers save millions

Author: JT Smith

Walk into the Largo, Florida, city hall and look at the two computer screens behind the reception desk. Instead of the typical Windows "Start" button in the lower left-hand corner, they have a KDE "Gear" logo, as do almost all of the 400-plus monitors on Largo employees' desks. Receptionists, administrative assistants, and division fire chiefs here all use Linux instead of Windows, and most of them don't really notice one way or the other. But the elected officials who are responsible for Largo's IT budget certainly know about and notice Linux, because using Linux instead of Windows is saving the city a lot of money.
One of the great anti-Linux screeds we hear is, "The secretaries will never be able to figure it out." If that is so, then Largo employee Judy Judt must be one of the world's smartest office workers. She is sitting at her desk, happily accessing an online city directory that lists all employees, vendors, and other important contacts, using a simple Rolodex-like program that is running on top of an attractively-themed KDE 2.1.1 desktop. Then Judy moves to WordPerfect to check a document she's been working on -- by unshading an already-opened program window. "I like to keep them shaded like this," she says. "I know it's just habit, that it's really the same as keeping them in, what do you call it, the little bar at the bottom of the screen, but I like to do it this way on my computer."

Sysadmin Dave Richards, who is standing next to me as I watch Judy work, is quick to correct the nomenclature: Judy does not technically have a computer of her own, he says. She is using an NCD thin client that accesses a hefty server running Red Hat 7.1. Judy can move to any other desk, use her logon name and password on that desk's terminal, and Voila! That desktop suddenly becomes "her computer," right down to her favorite KDE theme and beach-photo wallpaper.

But to Judy, what happens behind the screen doesn't matter. All she knows is that she clicks a program open and uses it for her work, keeping dozens of programs open at a time. She uses Windows at home, but says, "I spend more time on the computer at work than at home, so I guess I'm really more comfortable with this system than with Windows now."

Dave and fellow sysadmin Mike Pearlman are even bigger fans of Largo's thin client system than Judy. Their 10-person IT staff supports 800 users running 400 devices (as Dave calls the thin clients). There is no way they could adequately support that many users and devices with such a small staff if they ran Windows on individual desktops. Dave says that if they had gone that route, "We'd be doing nothing but running around fixing PCs all day."

Networks and thin clients are not new to Largo (motto: "City of Progress"). The city started down this path in 1992 with SCO (now Caldera) Unixware and its Motif-based IXI desktop that, Dave says, "looked a lot like Windows 3.1." Later they started using KDE 1 on both OpenServer and Unixware, and finally, in July 2001, made the switch to Red Hat Linux 7.1 and KDE 2.1.1, a change Dave says "has gone really well."

The new server behind all 400 clients -- or devices or whatever you want to call them -- runs dual 933 MHz processors, has 3GB of memory, 18GB of hard disk, and redundant power supplies. Dave says it only cost about $9,500 to build. Each NCD thin client cost $750. Yes, Dave admits, they could have gotten less-expensive thin clients, but "we already had several hundred of these." They are attractive units, about the size of a hard-cover book, and have no moving parts. When they are booted, they download about 2 MB of operating system over the network and are up and running in seconds, not minutes. Dave encourages users to shut their devices down every night, not only to save power but also because each device automatically picks up all software upgrades every time it boots, so frequent reboots keep each device up to date without individual attention from the sysadmins.

If Largo ran Windows 2000 as a server operating system, Dave says they'd have to run "a substantial server cluster" instead of a single machine, because "NT [or 2000] gets flaky when you run more than 40 clients, while Linux can handle hundreds." Dave has no exact figure for the cost of of an adequate Windows server array for Largo's civic needs; it was obviously so much more expensive than the Linux alternative that it was never seriously considered.

On the client side, Dave estimates the current system, compared to Windows desktops, gives Largo direct hardware savings of about $300,000 per year, figuring that they'd have to swap out one-third of the city's desktops every year "just to stay current, not to increase productivity," if they ran Windows, a proposition Dave doesn't think would make the city's elected officials -- to whom he reports -- dance with joy.

Productivity software for Linux

Largo is still using some proprietary productivity software. WordPerfect is the city's standard word processor. It runs (over the network) from an old PII server on SCO Unix. Excel is the spreadsheet, running on another server through a Windows/Unix interoperability application. The current email client is Balsa, which is free and GPL-licensed, but they plan to replace it soon with Bynari's (proprietary) Unix/Linux-native Insight, a program that handles both POP and IMAP email and has most of the collaborative features (like the ability to coordinate appointments and meeting schedules with groups of coworkers) that make Microsoft Exchange a best-seller. But there is a big price difference between Insight and Exchange. With Insight, Dave says "between $80,000 and $90,000 will run the whole city" including all hardware and software, while with Exchange, "it would be more like "$400,000 or $500,000."

Although Largo's network is currently doing fine running discrete programs, each of which performs a specific task, the next major advance will probably be deployment of a full-featured office suite that incorporates word processor, spreadsheet, graphics creation and presentation functions, and can interpret both MS Office and WordPerfect files. Dave has installed OpenOffice on the network and, while he doesn't consider it quite ready for prime time, he and fellow sysadmin Mike have a number of the senior office staff happily using it for at least part of their work ("I really like the way you can use it to make drawings, it's very easy," one grey-haired worker volunteers), and have recruited several of them to help prepare bug reports and feature requests that might help steer OpenOffice development in directions that will make it fully usable for an operation like theirs as soon as possible.

Dave and Mike believe OpenOffice is currently six months to a year away from what their people need; they can't use it for all their word processing, for example, until it fully supports WordPerfect file imports. But they are looking forward to the day they can make it their standard office suite.

(They looked at Microsoft Office, but decided the total cost of installing, licensing and maintaining it could easily hit $1.5 million over a six-year cycle, while they estimate the total cost of maintaining OpenOffice for the same period to be about $100,000.)

Training users on Linux

One of the biggest problems Dave and Mike have run into when teaching new employees, most of whom are accustomed to Windows PCs, to use Largo's Linux-based network has nothing to do with the operating system: It is weaning them away from floppies. "How can we take work home without floppies?" is a frequent question they hear. Answer: "Email the file to yourself."

There is also the problem of teaching new employees not to worry about backups. Many are so used to system crashes and network failures in Windows environments that they have trouble realizing, at first, that all their files are stored on reliable servers -- with backups -- instead of on a desktop PC where a crash can wipe out hours or days of work. But these doubts are typically overcome after an employee has used Largo's network for a little while. "I was skeptical at first," one receptionist confides, "because [the place I worked before] had a Windows network that was always having problems. Now I'm comfortable with the network here. It's very easy to use once you get used to it."

There is also another, very human problem to overcome: that most people don't understand computers or software, but have memorized only the keystrokes and mouseclick patterns they need to get through the day, so the second they are given a new program they need to memorize a whole new set. This is not an OS-to-OS migration problem per se, but one that can crop up any time a new piece of software is introduced in a workplace environment. But then, because Dave and Mike aren't constantly running around fixing PCs, they have time to train people and answer users' questions, a luxury they would not have if they were fighting Windows problems all day long.

An interesting note on user acceptance of Largo's new KDE desktops: Workers here are putting quite a bit of thought into desktop "look and feel" customization. Because these are government offices, all wallpapers and screensavers must be "politically correct" ("No, Billy-Bob, you can't have pictures of nude women wearing hats made out of confederate flags, OK?"), so Dave and Mike have disabled KDE's ability to import outside graphics for these purposes. Instead, they offer a number of pre-approved pictures and themes (they use heavily), and note that a good-looking background seen on one monitor soon seems to spread to others, and that many workers like to change their desktop environments frequently, as one puts it, "to keep from getting bored with something I look at all day."

In contrast, a look around most Windows-using offices shows more blue default screens than anything else. The ability to customize KDE easily, even within set limits, seems to be quite popular among Largo city employees, to the point where Dave pointed out, in a message posted to a KDE email list about their change from KDE 1 to 2.2.1, "When a large amount of users are cut over, there is a spike [in server load] the first few days while everyone customizes their desktops. Everyone pokes around in the wallpapers and colors and fonts until they are comfortable."

Other governments should follow Largo's lead

Largo's computer-using workers are not, by and large, geeks. They are accountants, purchasing agents, and bookkeepers. They are rescue workers and police and fire personnel, managers and clerks, and so on. They are chosen for their skills in those areas, not for their ability to map out large-scale thin client networks or keep up with the latest Red Hat security patches. Those who have learned to use KDE's multiple-desktop feature may call the different desktops "rooms" or "computers" (as if each one was a whole separate computer, which is what they would have to be in Windows) or just use the appropriate word, "desktops." More may call the device they use "my computer" than the sysadmins would like, but does it really matter whether "my computer" is the thing that sits on or under a user's desk or is a 12 MB space on a server hard drive in another room? Not really, as long as it works. The point is, 800 Largo city employees, who are probably no more adept with computers than their conterparts elsewere, use Linux all day, every day, without thinking about the significance of it.

The people who should care most about the computers Largo employees use -- the local taxpayers -- probably don't think much about Linux either, and that's sad, because the fact that their city government is running a Linux-based thin client network instead of depending on Windows is saving them millions of dollars in hardware, software, support, and upgrade costs.

We haven't hit the day, quite yet, when newspaper and TV reporters routinely ask political candidates, "If you are as serious as you claim about cutting government expenses, why are you using Windows instead of Linux?" But that day will come, and it may come sooner than many of us expect if the current recession keeps going and tax revenues start declining instead of growing.


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